OK, so maybe it took her a while to catch on.
After all, she’s not just “Carol Ann.” Veteran character actress Rutanya Alda has played dozens and dozens of roles in her career, in such famous films as The Deer Hunter, Last Exit to Brooklyn, When a Stranger Calls and the cult hit Amityville II, as well as guest roles in almost every TV show that’s shot in New York City since the mid-1980s [and, in the interest of full disclosure, a recent guest-starring stint on my web series Old Dogs & New Tricks].
But it wasn’t until May 11, 2013, as actress Rutanya Alda was being honored by Impressario Marc Huestis at San Francisco’s historic Castro Theatre, that she realized Mommie Dearest—the Faye Dunaway vehicle in which Alda had played Joan Crawford’s faithful maid—had a huge gay cult following.
She had decided to read snippets from the diary she had kept during production of the infamous 1981 film (which Dunaway which notoriously refused to discuss) at the event. She was so taken by the enthusiastic response that she then began thinking it might make a good book! [Watch scenes at https://youtu.be/iaOJICFaOT4]
Jump ahead two years. Alda’s “Mommie Dearest Diaries” is set for publication in early summer. And who should call Ms. Alda’s agent but Ms. Dunaway herself, asking if Rutanya would “collaborate” (for an acknowledgement but no pay) with Dunaway on her own book about Mommie Dearest, which Dunaway recently decided to write.
Coincidence? Given Dunaway’s fury whenever asked about the film (till now)—and the fact the two actors haven’t spoken since they shot their final scene over 30 year ago—it does seem rather odd. Did Dunaway catch wind of Alda’s book? And how? Is this a pre-emptive strike? An attempt at damage control?
I talked with Rutanya as soon as I saw the news!
Rutanya Alda: My jaw dropped that she’d have the audacity to ask me to help her write her book. She must have been following the gay community, [which] has been so wonderful about supporting this movie. My guess is, and this is just a guess. She’s been out of the limelight for whatever I think 7 years; it’s been quite a while. She’s just sold her house in Hollywood. I think she’s used to living a certain lifestyle that, because she’s not working, she doesn’t want to give up. So not wanting anything to do with Mommie Dearest, walking out on a reporter in England who mentioned Mommie Dearest, after years of just hating Mommie Dearest, she sees the money. (Laughs) The money!
Leon Acord: The only viable thing she has to offer that anyone is interested in.
RA: She’s going to blame her career failure on Mommie Dearest but she did a bunch of stuff after Mommie Dearest, it’s not like after Mommie Dearest she stopped working. She won’t take responsible for her own part in the fact that she’s not working. People didn’t want to put up with it any more. All the lateness and the ego, and the self-centeredness. Watch the video of Bette Davis talking about working with Faye on the Johnny Carson show! [See it at https://youtu.be/QfS-zyst1VA]
I don’t think she’s going to own it in her book. I wish she would own it in her book, but I don’t think she will. It’s going to be, blame everyone else, blame poor Frank Perry [the director] who was scared to death of her. Blame everything and everyone else. People dislike her so much who worked with her. There’s a reason!
LA: Frank Yablans, the producer, was your fan. He said he cast you whenever possible.
RA: I did four films with him. He just recently died. He was a wonderful producer. He was actually also the former president of Paramount Pictures. He was professional, but he was not happy with all the stuff she put him through.
I just did the back cover shoot with Bart Mastronardi and Alan Rowe Kelly. I’m working with Leon Joosen, an animation director and member of the Academy, for the front cover, and pulling all the photos together. It’s really been wonderful. And Jeremy, my son, has been the best editor. He edited Vassar’s Miscellany News, which is one of the oldest American college weeklies, and resurrected the college’s other journal, The Vassar Chronicle. And all his skills have paid off for me, because he’s doing a superb job. He made minor edits to the diary for style and clarity, as well as editing my foreword — which helps you understand my life at the time of writing, since it is a diary — rearranging it so it made much more sense. We’re working on the epilogue now. He also had me explain stuff in the diary, in parenthesis, in more detail so people who don’t work in film will under it without having to Google terms. It’s a better book. I’m glad I waited.
LA: How great to have your son helping you, instead of some “yes man” or someone with their own agenda or ideas for your book.
RA: He talks to me honestly.
LA: And you really had no idea until the event at the Castro that this film had and continues to have such a huge gay following?
RA: The first time. It really was like somebody threw water in my face, and I woke up, thinking wow. That’s when I first started taking the diaries seriously, that it could be markets for it. When my agent submitted to Harper & Collins, they turned it down. They said there was no market for it. Now, Harper & Collins is publishing Faye’s book.
My thought is this. Faye really has no book. She has to make it up. Because, honestly, Leon, if I had not journaled all the details that I journaled, I wouldn’t remember 90% of it. It would’ve remembered it vaguely. A vague memory. But because I journaled it specifically, I had real specific, day to day stuff that happened. Now, my fantasy is this, that Faye, because she didn’t journal it, she’s going to take my book when it’s published and use it as an outline for her book! She’ll take incidents that I write about, and of course she’ll make them up from her point of view.
LA: What was that conversation like?
RA: My agent spoke with her. Because I didn’t want to speak with her. I said, John, I don’t want to deal with her. I don’t know what she wants. It wasn’t something I wanted to do. I thought maybe she heard about my diary and she was going to lambast me. And I thought for a while, give her my number, maybe she’ll leave a nasty message on my phone, which would be great! That would have been wonderful.
She said very nice things about me to John, and said she wanted me to help “us” – she used the word “us” – with her book. To me, that means there must be a writer working with her.
LA: Maybe she meant it in the “royal we.”
RA: That’s when my jaw dropped. When John called me right after that. He said he was on the phone with her for exactly 50 minutes. I did not expect that she would want me to help her on her book, for no money and a thank you in a foreword.
Remember how she said Christina kept making money off of Joan? Now she’s going to be making money off of Joan! It’s interesting.
LA: Of course. She knows the film’s gay following. Yet you didn’t know till that night at the Castro Theatre—
RA: I had no idea until the Castro! No idea that anyone would be interested in my diary!
LA: She has always refused to talk about it, or been so negative about it. She has no sense of humor about it. I can’t imagine her writing a book about Mommie Dearest. It won’t be a fun read if she doesn’t have a sense of humor about the experience.
RA: Yeah! Yeah! Exactly. That’s so true. She’s not going to remember a lot of the stuff. Honestly, 30 years later, memory is not that clear. It’s like reliving it.
She heard about my book because she asked my literary agent, John Campbell, if he had read my book and who is going to publish it.
LA: It’s kind of great for your book, though, since it’s coming out this summer.
RA: It should be out in May or June. I think her book’s going to take a little longer because she’s going to have to put together a lot of stuff. I wish her well. There is room for two books. One based on reality, one based on fantasy.
I don’t think Terry O’Neill [one of Mommie Dearest’s producers and Dunaway’ex-husband] is talking to her anymore. The last thing I read, he’s happily remarried, living in London and doesn’t want to talk about her. Who is going to help her with her book? The key people are dead. That’s why she wanted me to work with her.
LA: Maybe she’ll get Mara Hobel [who played Christina Crawford as a child].
RA: She was 8 or 9 years old. She’s not going to remember much about it.
LA: She did mention in some interview that Faye bought her a necklace.
RA: She bought her a lot of toys!
LA: Also, she’s Faye Dunaway, so of course she’s going to present everything in a way that portrays her as either the innocent victim, as she has in the past. The director was wrong, the producers didn’t do their jobs, yada yada yada.
RA: And blaming the director for everything. The poor guy was so frightened of her!
LA: The movie has a great pedigree. All the ingredients were there. What do you think it was? John Waters say, if they’d just cut out the “Tina, bring me the ax!” scene, it would’ve won an Oscar. What do you think made it be received so weirdly by audiences when it was released?
RA: I love John Waters, but I don’t agree with him about cutting the tree scene.
I just think it was an over-the-top movie that luckily for me has gained this wonderful audience of people who really enjoy it, and love it. And know the lines. And it’s an event. I thought, Gosh! Of all the movies I’ve done, this one has got the longest and strongest legs. People see it over and over again, and they still love it. So I’m thrilled about that. Wow!
LA: What is it about Rutanya Alda that makes you so willing to go there and talk about it honestly, when so many in show business won’t?
RA: I feel like, what’s the point of making it up with the truth is so much better? [Laughs] Also, I learned early in life that I was a terrible liar. I could never remember the lie. I just decided, since I can’t remember what I said, I might as well not make it up, and just say it. People are going to like me, or not like me. I just gave up that façade a long time ago. I’m willing to talk about any movie I made and whether I had a good time or a bad time.
It’s interesting, though, Leon, that of all the movies I’ve made, this is the only one I journaled.
RA: I had never journaled another movie. I write in the preface of my book, I was having a very difficult time on the set, and in my personal life. I started because it helped me maintain my balance and harmony. I found when I journaled, my life became smoother because the set was so full of tension. When I wrote about the events, it made me calmer.
LA: That’s something else that Faye won’t be able to capture in her book. She won’t be able to write about what the costume person said, or how the cameraman felt, or what the director thought. Or any of the mood on the set from any perspective but her own. She won’t be able to capture any of that.
RA: You know, that’s so true. I capture the hair people, the make-up people, the DP. The crew. The director, what he said. I capture all the people who make the film, as well as Faye, of course.
LA: Is it true they “plain-Janed” you up, so Dunaway wouldn’t be intimated by your looks?
RA: Yeah. Frank Perry came in very early, before we started the movie, before we even did the costumes shots. We started doing the makeup. And Charles H. Schram, who was the make-up artist, had worked with Joan Crawford on a number of movies, and had done The Wizard of Oz—he was an old-timer! He had made a life mask of my face, because he was going to age me for the older scenes. Off the life mask, he makes these little appliances, a chin, the nose. So the first time Frank came into the make-up room, I looked very attractive. And Frank said, “No, no, she looks too good. She can’t look this good.” He said to Charlie “You gotta make her look worse.”
The second time he came in, I looked worse. But Frank said, “No, no, it’s not working. This is not good. You’ve got to make her look worse.”
The third time, he said, “Rutanya, if you look this good, Faye will have you fired and there’s nothing that I can do about it.” So I said to Charlie, “Look, I don’t want to be fired! Look, you got to make me look really bad!” So he put a tip on my nose, he attached a chin. He made me look really sallow. Frank came back and said, “That’s better.”
LA: You were an ingénue then. You weren’t vain, or upset?
RA: No. I wanted to do this part.
LA: I’m sure you know, that Joan Crawford was once quoted in the ‘70s, before her death, as saying of all the actresses working then, only Dunaway had the class of an old-time movie star—before Mommie Dearest was made, of course.
RA: In the early days, she made some fine films, like Bonnie & Clyde and Chinatown. I think she did some really wonderful work!
I think her early work was really quite amazing. And then I think, what happened to her, is she became a star. A lot of times, the danger in becoming a star is you lose the very thing that made you interesting. I think sometimes people exchange being a star for being a really good actress. They don’t want to take chances. They’ve become a star and they want to do the same things. Stars take themselves very seriously. When Joan Crawford was talking about her, I think she was talking about those early days, when she did these wonderful films. She had that old Hollywood glamour, the sense of the beautiful clothes, and beautiful face. She looked wonderful.
I think, somewhere along the way, stars start to believe their own stuff. And instead of growing into parts, they become stuck as stars.
LA: And I don’t think Mommie Dearest ruined her career, as she claims, but the choices she made afterwards—basically playing Joan Crawford in Supergirl and The Wicked Lady.
RA: I think you’re right. Also, the difficulties she put people through on set. I think, after a while, people didn’t want to deal with that anymore. I really think it costs the producers a lot of money. And I think the word gets out. People don’t want to deal with difficulties.
LA: Is it also a bit of sexism? I have noticed on sets that when women on a crew behave as strong as men, some people label them as “pushy.” So when you have a woman who is so demanding, and so difficult, they just don’t want to work with it?
RA: I think it was about showing up when you’re supposed to show up, and you’re still in your dressing room four hours later. I think that’s what cost the production a lot of money. That happened a lot on Mommie Dearest, shots were pushed back, and then a lot of them were cut because they ran out of time.
Throughout the journal in my book, it’s like “She’s late.” … “She’s late!” “She’s late so they have to cut this other shot.” I think that’s a big part of the producers who don’t want to see money spent that way.
I remember in the funeral scene. We were supposed to shoot that early in the day, but because Faye was late for this and that, we were pushed until evening. Then they only had so much time before they went into overtime. And they had to shoot that scene in just in hour or less. It was a huge scene! And a lot of the coverage was lost because of that.
LA: Didn’t you have to play to a photo of Faye Dunaway in the coffin because she wasn’t there?
RA: She was in the coffin by herself for so long. I was supposed to go in and have a goodbye scene with her. But that was cut because of Faye.
How can you not have Carol Ann in there, saying goodbye to her? “Oh we don’t have time, she was in the coffin too long.” I’m like, how can you be shooting her laying in a coffin for four or five hours? He said “Because we were in there so long with her, we don’t have time to see you with her, so here’s a Polaroid picture.”
LA: Such a mistake, because that was the most interesting relationship in the movie, Joan and Carol Ann. Much more interesting than Joan and daughter, ironically.
RA: Thank you!
LA: She claims now that it wasn’t make-up that transformed her into Joan Crawford. It was all about how she held her face.
RA: She had a lot of make-up on, believe me!
LA: I remember the first time I saw the movie. And she when spun around the first time, and say’s “Let’s go!” The audience gasped.
RA: That turnaround shot, they’re lacing up her ice skates. They had to cut the skating sequence.
LA: In the original script, wasn’t there a scene about how she kept falling down while skating, and cutting her legs, but she kept getting up and doing it again, and again?
RA: There was a scene in the script of her skating, and no matter what happened, Joan was going to do it, she was going to make it work. But they had to cut that because they ran out of time.
Rutanya promises many on-set stories that I don’t dare spoil here! (Particularly look for what costume designer Irene Sharaff suspects!) I know I can’t wait to get my hands on ‘Mommie Dearest Diaries’!
Leon Acord is the writer/creator/exec. producer of the award-winning hit web TV series Old Dogs & New Tricks, as well as one of its stars. As an actor, he’s appeared in over 20 stage productions and 30 films, most notably as “Quentin Crisp” in LA & SF productions of Jeffrey Hartgraves’ after-life comedy Carved in Stone; as “Jacob Marley” in two productions of gay apparel: A Christmas Carol; and in lead roles in the features Final Remains, Some Prefer Cake, and in film-fest favorites Foucault WHO?, Deer Season and aWake. As a writer, he has written for San Francisco Examiner, Back Stage, TV Guide, WeHo News, Huffington Post and others. He also authored his 1997 solo show Last Sunday in June. He attended Indiana University.
Rutanya Alda photo by Bart Mastronardi /Hair and makeup by Alan Rowe Kelly
Mommie Dearest photos courtesy of Rutanya Alda from her collection.